MISSOULA — The state of Montana is proposing water quality limits to protect Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River from selenium coming down from Canada’s coal mines, but the mining industry and Republican legislators are trying to block the effort.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality last week hosted an online public hearing as part of the comment period on proposed selenium standards in Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River below the Libby Dam.
On Sept. 24, DEQ proposed a limit of 8.5 milligrams per kilogram of selenium in dried whole fish tissue to protect fish and aquatic species from damage to their reproductive systems.
The agency is also proposing a selenium concentration limit of 0.8 micrograms per liter in lake water and 3.1 micrograms per liter in the river. The difference is because moving water poses less of a pollution problem than standing water.
Brad Smith, Idaho Conservation League’s Northern Idaho director, praised Montana’s effort because it would protect the Kootenai River as it flows into Idaho too.
On Oct. 30, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved Idaho’s Clean Water Act report, which lists the Kootenai River as impaired for selenium. Idaho’s sampling in 2019 found mountain whitefish with selenium levels in their reproductive organs that exceeded EPA limits.
“The Clean Water Act requires states to meet downstream water quality standards. Because Idaho is on the downstream end of the Kootenai River, the state of Montana must meet Idaho water quality standards at the state line,” Smith said.
Studies show about 95% of the selenium in Lake Koocanusa comes from the Elk River in British Columbia, Canada. The Teck Resources coalmines sit along the Elk River that dumps into the top end of Lake Koocanusa and have been leaching selenium and nitrogen into the water for decades.
The concentration of selenium at the mouth of the Elk River started exceeding the British Columbia guideline in the early 1990s. It has continued to increase to where it’s now four times the B.C. guidelines.
On Oct. 13, Randal McNair, Elk Valley coordinator for Wildsight, a Canadian nonprofit group, told the legislative Water Policy Interim Committee that Teck Resources’ five mines have contaminated Fernie’s drinking water wells to the point some are unusable.
“Levels of selenium have risen significantly during this last decade and a half,” McNair said. “We’ve been living with these increasing impacts year after year. There are local residents who have potable water provided by Teck as their wells are contaminated by selenium."
"All as a result of the mines. It’s clear there’s been a failure to protect the people and the environment in the Elk Valley. I’d like to suggest that Montana cannot rely on my province, British Columbia, to ensure the safety of the water of the Koocanusa and Kootenai River.”
Fortunately, the selenium in Montana’s water isn’t a human health hazard yet. But fish – including the endangered Kootenai River white sturgeon and the Lower Kootenai River burbot, which is on the verge of being listed as a threatened species – are living in waters that could cause their populations to dwindle further.
The international Lake Koocanusa Monitoring and Research Working Group started studying selenium contamination six years ago after Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks found selenium levels were increasing in seven species of fish in the lake between 2008 and 2013.
Lauren Sullivan, DEQ water quality standards manager, said the DEQ standards are calculated based on the past six years of sampling, computer modeling by the U.S. Geological Survey and input from selenium experts from British Columbia and the U.S., including the EPA, USGS, tribes and the states of Idaho and Montana.
Ignoring the six-year study and the five years of sampling prior to that, Republican legislators of northwestern Montana accused the DEQ of fast-tracking the standard.
A few months ago, they pushed the Water Policy Interim Committee to hear the proposal in October because the committee could vote to delay the standard for six months. But the committee ended up with a 5-5 vote, so the process moved forward.
“This is being fast-tracked by the current administration and will come under great scrutiny by the new administration,” said state Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Libby). “We’re no longer just setting a scientific standard but producing a political football being used to strong-arm industry across the border.”
Governor-elect Greg Gianforte has said his goal is to get rid of environmental regulations.
State Rep. Neil Duram of Eureka and state Sen. Mike Cuffe of Eureka said the study didn’t show a reason to set such a standard and claimed it could limit mining, development and economy in the area, even though no Montana jobs depend on the Teck Resources mines.
“I don’t understand what the crisis is,” Cuffe said. “What I see in the studies is a relatively small number of fish have exceeded some standard or have some level. I’m not going to argue the science. What I’m saying is people don’t understand it, including myself, including all of the elected leaders of Lincoln County. Nobody is saying there’s an immediate crisis. And nobody’s stopping to explain the science.”
Erin Sexton, University of Montana Flathead Lake Biological Station senior scientist, knows all about the science, having started her graduate studies at UM in 2000 by studying the Elk River Valley. She also participated in the research working group starting in 2014 and said it’s disappointing to hear people claim the process is rushed.
“From Day 1, the members agreed that selenium posed the biggest threat to Koocanusa reservoir and the Kootenai River downstream,” Sexton said. “I can also attest that this is some of the most comprehensive science that I’ve ever seen go into a process.”
Representatives of the mining industry said the standard was too low because sampling has already produced fish and water that violates the limit. The lake water at the border averages 0.3 micrograms per liter more than what the standard would allow.
They argued against a standard that would cause the lake to be designated as impaired because Montana wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.
William Adams of the Utah-based North American Metals Council worried such a low standard could set a precedent for other states to follow.
The CSKT and the Kootenai Tribes of Idaho depend on the Kootenai River for sustenance and cultural reasons, so they support a rigorous standard. On Oct. 30, the CSKT sent a letter to the Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change encouraging the Canadian government to take a hard look at Teck Resources’ request to expand its coal mines.
Stu Levit, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes mine reclamation specialist, also participated in the research working group and said without an enforceable standard, polluters have free reign to promote their bottom line. Also, a selenium standard would give Montana grounds to claim financial compensation from Teck Resources or British Columbia if contamination does affect Lincoln County’s economy.
“It seems that every public meeting in this process becomes expanded to include more and more requests to delay the years’-long process based upon what I suggest are misguided and misleading unsupported stories that the process is anything but open, supported, scientific and timely,” Levit said. “The notion that a Canadian mining company might be prejudiced by a process that protects U.S. waters is ludicrous.”
The public comment period on the DEQ standard is open until Nov. 23. Following that, the Environmental Board of Review will make the final decision on the standard.
Comments may be submitted to Sandy Scherer, Paralegal, Department of Environmental Quality, 1520 E. Sixth Avenue, P.O. Box 200901, Helena, Montana 59620-0901; faxed to (406) 444-4386; or emailed to email@example.com.